Posts Tagged ‘Climate change’

Action on climate heating up

Tuesday, August 25th, 2015 - posted by tom

cleanpower_vert

When future historians write the book about climate change, they will surely note August 3, 2015, as the beginning of a new chapter. President Obama’s announcement that day of first-ever regulations to limit carbon pollution from power plants in America — which has one of the largest carbon footprints in the world — marks an unprecedented milestone.

Yet, as important as it is, it’s anything but certain how the story unfolds from here.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency developed the Clean Power Plan over many years and with millions of public comments. The rule sets a national target of reducing carbon pollution from power plants by 32 percent below 2005 levels by the year 2030. Though a relatively modest goal, it sends a strong message to other nations that the United States is acting on climate.

In the rule, the EPA gives states tremendous latitude in how they meet their individual emissions targets, and that’s where the rub is. Our concern is that many states will favor more natural gas — which burns cleaner than coal but has serious climate impacts from extraction and transportation — over energy efficiency and renewable sources like solar and wind.

By investing in efficiency and renewables, southeastern states can leverage the Clean Power Plan to create tens of thousands of jobs, help families save money on their monthly electricity bills, and ensure healthier air and water for us and for future generations. These benefits are especially important for low-income communities and coal-impacted areas of Appalachia, which continues to suffer the dire health and economic consequences of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Shortly after the president’s speech, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe expressed support for the Clean Power Plan, noting the importance of reducing carbon emissions and “creating the next generation of clean energy jobs.” We appreciate the governor’s recognition of America’s changing energy landscape and we’re fully engaged with our partner groups in working with his administration to comply with the new rule to benefit all Virginians.

In North Carolina, however, Governor Pat McCrory took the opposite tack. Despite the fact that North Carolina is currently in an excellent position to easily meet the EPA’s proposed goal for the state, the governor not only helped the state government pass a law blocking implementation of the rule, he vowed to take legal action against the EPA. Appalachian Voices is committed to continue pushing the Tar Heel state in the right direction, and stands willing to work with its leaders to realize clean energy solutions.

We celebrate this new chapter and embrace the work ahead to keep the momentum on our side.

For Appalachia,
Tom

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U.S. coal giant Alpha Natural Resources files for bankruptcy

Friday, August 7th, 2015 - posted by jamie
Alpha Natural Resources Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, West Virginia - Photo by Ami Vitale

Alpha Natural Resources’ Twilight surface mine complex in Boone County, W.Va. Photo by Ami Vitale, www.amivitale.com.

Alpha Natural Resources, one of the largest coal mining companies in the United States and a big player in the Appalachian coal market, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on Monday of this week, coincidentally on the day President Obama announced his administration’s final Clean Power Plan.

In the announcement, Alpha blamed “an unprecedented period of distress with increased competition from natural gas, an oversupply in the global coal market, historically low prices due to weaker international and domestic economies, and increasing government regulation that has pushed electric utilities to transition away from coal-fired power plants.”

According to the release, the company does not anticipate closing the business down, but will “seek the necessary immediate relief from the Bankruptcy Court that will allow normal business operations to continue uninterrupted while in Chapter 11, with coal being mined, customer commitments honored, and wages and benefits for Alpha’s affiliated employees paid.”

A Bloomberg Business article notes that Alpha, which employs nearly 8,000 workers at more than 50 underground and surface mines and more than 20 coal preparation facilities in Virginia, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Wyoming, has accumulated $3.3 billion in debt over the past several years.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Alpha has assets of $10.1 billion, liabilities of $7.1 billion, and is “seeking up to $692 million in bankruptcy financing from senior lenders and secured bondholders to fund its operations.”

United Mine Workers of America responded to the news:

“Today’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing by Alpha Natural Resources appears to follow the same script as others we’ve seen this year: pay off the big banks and other Wall Street investors at the expense of workers, retirees and their communities … Alpha needs to understand that while we are willing to discuss ways forward that will be of mutual benefit for the company and for our members, we are also prepared to do whatever we need to do to maintain decent jobs with the pension and health care benefits our retirees were promised and have earned.”

Alpha launched a new website to detail the Chapter 11 process, including contact information and FAQs for employees, customers, retirees and other stakeholders.

Is there an echo in here?

The move brings to mind the financial roller coaster of Patriot Coal, the West Virginia-based company that emerged from its first bankruptcy in 2012 only to file again a scant 3 years later in May of this year. Patriot’s initial 2012 “restructuring” plan was extremely controversial as it involved slashing the healthcare benefits of 1,800 union miners and retirees. Patriot initially won court approval for the cut, but, after significant public scrutiny and outrage, settled with the United Mine Workers of America in 2013 for $400 million to cover the benefits.

And now history seems to be repeating itself. According to an AP story that is quoted on Coal Tattoo (yet mysteriously disappeared from national news outlets, including the Washington Post), just a few weeks ago Patriot asked a judge’s permission to “reject the company’s collective bargaining agreement with union miners and change retirees’ health care benefits …” The United Mine Workers of America filed an objection to the proposed plan, which includes $6.4 million in bonuses paid to management employees.

Just this week, the beleaguered company announced the layoff of 1,081 coal miners, most in West Virginia’s Kanawha County.

Patriot Coal is also the first coal company in Appalachia to announce it would phase out the devastating practice of mountaintop removal coal mining.

“Big Coal’s war on itself”

When examining the financial tribulations of big coal mining companies, industry officials are quick to point the finger at what they have dubbed the “war on coal,” claiming that environmental regulations are the primary culprits causing their fiscal misfortunes. But according to a recent article co-authored by independent financial analyst Andrew Stevenson and NRDC’s Dave Hawkins, coal mining’s economic downturn has more to do with bad investment decisions than anything else.

“The biggest cause of Big Coal’s loss of value is that Big 3 management bet big on a global coal boom and lost big when it went bust,” Stevenson and Hawkins write. Their article goes on to detail the five specific reasons Alpha and other coal companies are on the brink of bankruptcy.

“In sum, bad bets at the top of the market, weak met coal prices, cheap natural gas, and lower power demand due to energy efficiency reduced cumulative forecasted coal revenues for the Big 3 by approximately $21 billion over the past four years. This is a big hit for companies as highly leveraged as Alpha Natural, Arch Coal, and Peabody Energy and the reason why these companies are struggling to stay afloat today.”

As industry officials and coal-friendly politicians — including an outspoken Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who notedly said, “I am not going to sit by while the White House takes aim at the lifeblood of our state’s economy” — themselves take aim at the Clean Power Plan, they have yet to acknowledge the most important question on the table: what will happen to residents in Appalachia’s coal country who, because of company bankruptcies, layoffs, revocation of pensions and lack of other job opportunities, remain among the poorest in the nation?

So far, the only offer of assistance to these folks has come from President Obama himself, in the form of the POWER+ Plan to revitalize the region.

“They’ll claim [the Clean Power Plan] is a “war on coal,” to scare up votes — even as they ignore my plan to actually invest in revitalizing coal country, and supporting health care and retirement for coal miners and their families, and retraining those workers for better-paying jobs and healthier jobs,” Obama said on Monday, taking aim at McConnell and his other critics. Communities across America have been losing coal jobs for decades. I want to work with Congress to help them, not to use them as a political football.

Virginians’ electric bills could shrink under Clean Power Plan

Monday, July 20th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Appalachian Voices' members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe.

Appalachian Voices’ members deliver a petition supporting a strong Clean Power Plan to the office of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. A new report from Public Citizen underscores the economic benefits of investing in energy efficiency to comply with the plan.

A new report from Public Citizen’s Climate Program details how the EPA’s soon-to-be finalized standards on carbon pollution could lower Virginians’ power bills.

The strategy for achieving this benefit is simple: invest in cost-effective energy efficiency programs first.

You may be wondering why yet another document is necessary to make the obvious case for improving energy efficiency. After all, Virginia already has a state goal of reducing retail electricity 10 percent by 2020.

But Public Citizen’s report is so important now — just a few weeks ahead of the final Clean Power Plan’s release — because the EPA’s detractors continue to argue that the plan will be very costly for Virginians.

Ever since the EPA announced the proposal last summer, misconceptions and red herring arguments have circulated, some stranger and more exaggerated than others. At a committee meeting in Richmond, for example, an opponent of the plan made the mind-boggling claim that more premature deaths will potentially result from the standards than would be prevented.

Beyond baseless arguments about negative health impacts, opponents of the Clean Power Plan weave a tangled web when they attack the standards on the basis of rising energy costs.

As the report points out, rates are not what consumer advocates should be most concerned with in this case. Customers’ utility costs are determined by the price they pay per megawatt hour and their usage. According to the report, Virginians can expect to see electricity bills go down on average about $147 annually.

Before anyone decides how to spend that extra $147, note that that figure is likely conservative, and monthly savings for customers may be greater for a couple of reasons. First, that number was arrived at using the EPA’s estimates of what it costs to run programs that save energy, and the EPA indicates that those estimates are 60 to 100 percent higher than they should be given more recent studies that show energy efficiency can be done for much less.

Second, it doesn’t consider the cost of energy efficiency gains coming down as economies of scale are reached, treating efficiency instead as a tree from which fruit gets harder to collect once the low-hanging ones are already picked. So it is quite possible that customers will save much more through participating in efficiency programs, eliminating the need or desire by utilities to construct new natural gas and nuclear facilities.

An introductory summary as well as the full Public Citizen report are online. This Media Matters piece from last year breaks down the myths and the facts about the Clean Power Plan, which will be finalized next month.

Stay informed. Subscribe to The Front Porch Blog.

A time of transition: APCo’s latest Virginia generation plan

Monday, July 6th, 2015 - posted by hannah
Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

Customer involvement is essential as Appalachian Power navigates permitting and rate-setting for future clean energy projects in Virginia. Photo courtesy of Community Housing Partners / Solarize Blacksburg.

It’s like Christmas in July — for those of us who get excited about energy news, at least.

Last week, Virginia’s utilities released their long-term plans to meet electric demand. Here we unwrap that bright and shiny package and take a look at what mix of resources Appalachian Power Co. plans to pursue between now and 2029.

What would you expect APCo to include in its plan? It wouldn’t be a surprise to see huge investments in solar and wind; after all, clean power is growing rapidly in the commonwealth. For example, in the first three months of 2015, clean energy jobs picked up rapidly to the point that Virginia was ranked seventh in the country, counting biofuels and other clean transportation projects. Solarize initiatives and institutions are further fanning these flames, and this fire now appears to be reaching the utility level, too. With utility participation in this trend, there is a chance to realize serious health, economic and employment benefits.

And there is another important consideration in Virginia. Last year, the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia electric utilities, directed APCo to look at ways to meet national carbon pollution reduction goals.

Now that APCo’s latest long-term plan is out, we have a window into how the company hopes to meet future demand. We can now ask how these options promote healthier communities, lower overall energy bills and create more sustainable clean energy jobs in the company’s service area, which includes much of western Virginia. And we can see how its plan interacts with new pollution standards.

Here are five points to help illuminate the plan: its purpose, the mix of sources, how energy efficiency is treated, the role of fossil fuels, and the scale of renewables.

1. APCo calls its primary option the “hybrid” plan. According to the plan summary: “While not the least-cost plan, the Hybrid Plan, when compared to other portfolios, attempts to balance cost, the potential risk of a volatile energy market.” That last phrase can help defend the options based on the fluctuations in natural gas prices and may refer to regulations, too.

2. Wind, solar and efficiency resources currently total just 1 percent of APCo’s total capacity (in megawatts). Today, coal represents 72 percent of APCo’s generation portfolio. Natural gas represents 14 percent. By 2029, wind, solar and efficiency will come to 22 percent under this approach, coal will fall to 52 percent and natural gas will grow to 23 percent.

3. But let’s look at energy efficiency. Currently, there are no APCo efficiency programs underway in Virginia. There is, however, a set of “demand-side management” programs that the commission approved to begin later this year. And the company does fund low-income weatherization. Still, its Hybrid Plan largely ignores the opportunity to expand energy efficiency, which under the plan accounts for just 1 percent of energy needs by 2029. The state goal endorsed by Governor Terry McAuliffe is 10 percent savings by 2020. Only by developing much more robust energy efficiency programs can APCo significantly invest in reducing customer bills, help create jobs in home energy assessment and retrofitting, and avoid the need to develop costlier sources.

4. Clinch River Power Plant units 1 and 2 are still on schedule to be converted to natural gas now and then retired before 2026, and unit 3 is close to being retired. Glen Lyn is now also retired. While the Hybrid Plan describes pursuing constructing 836 megawatts of combined-cycle natural gas units, it appears the company plans to build those plants out of state, limiting the growth of carbon emissions in Virginia, but leading to an increase in the carbon footprint of APCo’s Virginia customers.

5. Clean energy investments would grow significantly under APCo’s plan. Utility-scale solar will include a 10-megawatt project in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 510 megawatts of solar by 2029. Onshore wind will include 150 megawatts of projects in 2016, with future projects bringing the total to 1,350 megawatts of wind by 2029. APCo assumes its customers will add a total of 25 megawatts of distributed solar generation (rooftop panels) by 2029. Since APCo is factoring that distributed solar into its plans, it should assist customers with incentives to go solar and begin to fairly value those customers’ contributions to a more secure and cleaner energy system.

While APCo representatives stress that the resource plan document is merely a snapshot in time and subject to changes and evolution, it’s worth engaging with the utility about what this plan says about its priorities.

Since APCo’s choices figure into Virginia’s ultimate compliance with the Clean Power Plan, it’s critical that the utility consider how to maximize benefits for customers as it works to meet emissions targets. Over the next 15 years, APCo must plan to reduce its total annual carbon pollution, not just slow its growth. The goals for greenhouse gas reductions are within reach, and our energy choices send signals that echo louder than ever across the Southeast.

As APCo navigates permitting and rate-setting processes for its vision of future clean energy projects, customer involvement will be essential. We’ll need to be ready to challenge any and all barriers to smart renewable energy investments that diversify local energy sources, create jobs in the clean energy sector and result in healthier air in APCo’s service region.

Pope’s message on climate brings hope for change

Thursday, June 18th, 2015 - posted by cat

Encyclical-PF-10As news of Pope Francis’ pronouncement of our collective moral obligation to act on climate change whipped around the world, the planet just might have yawed and shook for a split second. The leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide is a spiritual guide for many more, and his encyclical on ecology — the Vatican’s first — was anticipated to be a game-changer in the ongoing struggle to shed the world’s economies of fossil fuels and abate global warming.

Whether that happens remains to be seen, but in the meantime, leaders from all corners of the globe and all walks of life hopped on the papal bandwagon to sound their own calls-to-action, including decisive action at the upcoming international climate summit in Paris. Below is a sampling of some of these comments, and a few excerpts from the “Laudato Si’” Encyclical. (What’s an encyclical? This article has a good summary of these papal documents.)

Quotes and excerpts are drawn from The Tree: Content for Climate and Energy Communicators website.)

  • “We are part of Nature. We don’t have two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather a single complex socio-environmental crisis. This is the frame within which we need to put some of the themes in the Encyclical” – Cardinal Peter Turkson
  • “The Church should now introduce the sin against the environment, the ecological sin. It is a sin not only against God but also against our neighbour and also, and this is very serious, against future generations” – Metropolitan of Pergamo, John Zizioulas
  • “As responsible citizens of the world – sisters and brothers of one family, the human family, God’s family – we have a duty to persuade our leaders to lead us in a new direction: to help us abandon our collective addiction to fossil fuels.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu
  • “Business is a human enterprise and therefore must be by people for the people, whereas with business as usual not many of us will be around to enjoy the benefits” – Dr. Carolyn Woo, President & CEO of Catholic Relief Services
  • “The ones politicising the matter are those like Cruz who coddle their fossil fuel funders by denying the science of climate change and smearing those who attempt to point out the very real and damaging impacts climate change is already having. It is shameful and history will judge it as such.” – Director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann
  • “Climate science is a tool for making decisions, not a political football. I wish journalists and citizens would ask politicians how they are using climate science to do their jobs — including protecting us from changes in some types of extreme weather — not for their personal opinions about scientific evidence.” – The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Aaron Huertas
  • “Today, it’s clearer than ever that the end of the fossil fuel era is upon us — and so too, we hope, the end of the era of rising poverty and inequality. The Pope’s call only hastens our transition to a clean energy future, adding even more momentum to the fast-growing movement to divest from fossil fuels.” – 350.org Executive Director, May Boeve

Some gems from “Laudato Si’”

  • Page 4 Section 8 – Protecting nature, quoting Patriarch Bartholomew

    “For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins”.

  • Page 28 Section 67 The Church has made mistakes, but that’s no reason not to do the right thing

    Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world (cf. Gen 2:15).

  • Page 49 Section 114 Directing technology does not mean a return to the stone age

    All of this shows the urgent need for us to move forward in a bold cultural revolution. Science and technology are not neutral; from the beginning to the end of a process, various intentions and possibilities are in play and can take on distinct shapes. Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.

  • Page 70 Section 165 Shifting away from fossil fuels

    We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels – especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas – needs to be progressively replaced without delay.

  • Page 82 Section 198 Politicians need to look beyond themselves

    While some are concerned only with financial gain, and others with holding on to or increasing their power, what we are left with are conflicts or spurious agreements where the last thing either party is concerned about is caring for the environment and protecting those who are most vulnerable. Here too, we see how true it is that “unity is greater than conflict.”

La Crosse Virus on the Rise in Appalachia

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Laura Marion

By Laura Marion

A third species of mosquito capable of transmitting the La Crosse encephalitis virus has been discovered in the Appalachian region, according to a report published by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Up to 100 cases of the disease are reported each year in the United States. The disease mainly affects the elderly and children younger than 16. Symptoms usually include nausea and headaches, although life-threatening conditions can also develop.

The number of reports of La Crosse have steadily increased in Appalachia since 2003. The report notes that climate change could result in a future rise in the amount of mosquitoes carrying the La Crosse virus in Appalachia.

Caught red-handed! Or more accurately, red-beaked

Monday, June 15th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
A motion-activated camera catches this wood thrush snacking on a ginseng berry. Photo courtesy of James McGraw

A motion-activated camera catches this wood thrush snacking on a ginseng berry. Photo courtesy of James McGraw

By Kimber Ray

With a bright berry neatly clasped in its beak, the wood thrush is frequently among the usual suspects of long-distance wild ginseng seed dispersal.

For three years, biology professor Jim McGraw and his West Virginia University research team trained motion-activated cameras on this threatened medicinal plant in an attempt to figure out which creature might be responsible for expanding the migration of ginseng’s otherwise gravity-driven seeds.

“Working with a plant like this makes you appreciate how vast our lack of knowledge is,” says McGraw. “Everytime we ask a new question we realize how little we know about this.”

After investigating hundreds of photos and conducting a feeding test with captive wood thrushes, a paper published last year identified this small brown-and-white mottled songbird as the seed dispenser. Unlike other ginseng diners, the thrush regurgitates the seeds intact.

This could offer an important means of transportation for ginseng as the climate continues to warm and disrupts the plant’s habitats. The most venturesome travels are undertaken by juvenile wood thrushes, which may comprise up to a quarter of the population and have been recorded as far as two miles from their nest sites.

“They get picked out of their home territory and go search for new food sources,” says McGraw. “That’s what we think may account for their importance in terms of climate change.”

But it’s unclear whether the wood thrush could beat the pace of climate change which, according to a second paper recently published by McGraw’s lab, will depress rates of growth and reproduction in the plant.

Combined with illegal gathering and overpopulation of deer, McGraw says there are a lot of environmental factors working against ginseng. Still, he adds, “Once we understand the whole ecosystem and how one piece out of balance affects the rest, we’re going to start doing things better.”

Clean Power Plan Comes with Options and Opportunities

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015 - posted by Cody Burchett
Citizens calling on lawmakers to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan have amplified their message ahead of the final rule’s release in August. Photo courtesy of Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club

Citizens calling on lawmakers to support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan have amplified their message ahead of the final rule’s release in August. Photo courtesy of Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club

By Brian Sewell

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found a familiar foe in Sen. Mitch McConnell when it announced plans to regulate carbon emissions from the nation’s power plants last summer.

The Kentucky Republican and Senate majority leader has pledged to “pursue all avenues,” whether through Congress or the courts, to cripple the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts to combat climate change.

McConnell even attempted to enlist officials at the state level, asking governors to rebuke the president by simply refusing to create a plan to implement the regulations.

That plot has so far failed. Ahead of the final rule’s release in August, at least 41 states are moving to meet their emissions goals, taking advantage of the flexibility offered under the plan to craft their own path to compliance.

“We have the legal — not just right and authority but responsibility — to [finalize the Clean Power Plan],” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said in April. “People expect us to do it. I don’t see any utility thinking we’re not going to do it. So the politics are one thing and reality is another.”

In reality, policy groups are acting as guides and convening state utility commissioners and environmental regulators to build a common understanding of the rule.

A range of recent analyses have found that, not only can states cost-effectively comply with the Clean Power Plan, they can create savings for consumers while reducing pollution. In May, the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions compared the findings of six such analyses, all of which conclude that energy efficiency is the most cost-effective way to reduce emissions and lower demand for fossil fuels.

The models also found that adopting efficiency programs minimizes impacts of the rising price of natural gas, the fuel that will cover much of coal’s lost capacity. In models where the role of energy efficiency was limited, on the other hand, costs to consumers ballooned with climbing gas prices.

But the concept that improving energy efficiency — doing more with less — can actually save money for consumers is lost on some of the plan’s opponents.

In April, the EPA’s Janet McCabe, testified to the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce that, “If we use less energy, our bills can go down. And our carbon emissions can go down.” West Virginia Rep. David McKinley was shocked. “Unbelievable,” the congressman replied. “It just seems delusional.”

As for renewable energy, the anticipated growth of wind and solar mean that they will contribute to reducing carbon with or without the Clean Power Plan. States with policies that incentivize renewable energy will see the greatest benefit.

While they don’t give the public the full story about opportunities presented by the Clean Power Plan, politicians like McConnell and McKinley are rightly concerned about the rule’s impact on the coal industry. Already against the ropes, the Appalachian coal industry is expected to take a huge hit from the plan.

According to a May analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the EPA’s proposal is expected to more than double the number of coal plant retirements through 2040, which would also impact coal production. In areas already suffering the economic impacts of coal’s decline, arguments against the plan relate to coal job losses as much as energy costs.

A new study by economists at the University of Maryland and the consulting firm Industrial Economics, however, concludes that the impact of lost jobs in the coal sector would be offset by investments in cleaner energy sources and productivity gains across the U.S. economy.

Despite the flexibility given to states under the plan, those seeking to defeat it are resolute. Legislation recently introduced by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., aims to erase the Clean Power Plan, according to language of the bill, “as though the rules had never been issued.”

Score one for the Clean Power Plan

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015 - posted by cat
Opponents of the EPA's Clean Power Plan were rebuked by a panel of judges for trying to preempt a rule that has yet to be finalized.

Opponents of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan were rebuked by a panel of judges for trying to preempt a rule that has yet to be finalized.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today rebuked the first legal challenge to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to cut global-warming pollution from the nation’s power plants, filed by the coal industry and a dozen states last year.

Any state regulators in central Appalachian or other coal-friendly states who were holding their breath, stalling on developing plans to cut carbon pollution from power plants in the hopes of a court victory, should take a deep breath and get back to work.

In a straightforward ruling, a panel of judges agreed that the states and the industry groups had no legal grounds to challenge EPA’s “Clean Power Plan,” which was proposed last year and is expected to be finalized in August.

“Petitioners are champing at the bit to challenge EPA’s anticipated rule restricting carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. But EPA has not yet issued a final rule. It has issued only a proposed rule. Petitioners nonetheless ask the Court to jump into the fray now. They want us to do something that they candidly acknowledge we have never done before: review the legality of a proposed rule.”

West Virginia led the pack in last year’s legal challenge of the EPA proposal. As state Attorney General Patrick Morrissey pretty much acknowledged in a statement today, it was a spaghetti strategy — throw it at the wall and see if it sticks:

“When we filed this case last summer, we knew there would be procedural challenges, but given the clearly illegal nature of the rule and the real harm occurring in West Virginia and throughout the country, we believed it was necessary to take all available action to stop this rule as soon as possible.”

One problem is that West Virginia, and the other plaintiff states, have essentially squandered the hard-earned money of their tax-paying citizens.

But a far greater issue is that some state regulators, who are responsible for developing the “State Implementation Plans” specifying how they’ll meet the EPA goals, have been holding out, hoping for a court ruling that would absolve them of this important task.

It’s time to quit dallying. The bottom line is, climate change is here, now, and existing fossil-fuel power plants account for 40 percent of America’s carbon footprint. We must significantly cut carbon pollution, and the most affordable, equitable and sensible way to do that is building up our clean energy sector.

Citizen Scientists Tackle Climate Change

Monday, April 13th, 2015 - posted by Dac Collins

By Lorelei Goff

In late March the sunlight falls in tepid, dappled patterns through the canopy of branches to the forest floor in Walker Valley, Tenn., home to the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Red maple leaves burst from swollen buds and bird-foot violets unfurl diminutive petals. A familiar melody warbles through the air. The black-throated green warbler darts from tree to tree. His yellow face scans the forest from beneath an olive crown, a bib of black outlining his white belly.

The Metcalf siblings – Joshua, Daniel, Hannah and Sarah – visit a Tremont phenology plot to take notes on April 25, 2014. Photo by Karen Metcalf

The Metcalf siblings – Joshua, Daniel, Hannah and Sarah – visit a Tremont phenology plot to take notes on April 25, 2014. Photo by Karen Metcalf

Once welcomed as a sign of the forest’s constant seasonal cycles, the male warbler arrives in Walker Valley more than two weeks earlier than he did 20 years ago. That has Tiffany Beachy, Tremont’s citizen science coordinator, wondering if the warbler’s song is an ode to climate change.

Scientists at Tremont are using phenology — the recurring plant and animal life cycles of species in a particular region — to monitor changes such as the warbler’s early arrival. Observations recorded by citizens over the past 30 years can be used to determine if the changes are related to climate change.

Karen Metcalf and her children have watched the changes in Walker Valley for more than five years as citizen science volunteers. Daniel, 10, Hannah, 14, and Sarah, 18, record observations about trees, plants and birds, and take part in bird banding and butterfly tagging as part of their homeschool education.

“I think my kids are more aware if they spend time actually being part of the scientific process,” says Metcalf.

“It’s neat to know that what I’m doing will go into that bigger research,” says daughter Hannah. “It’ll be cool to see, when people gather it and study it, how it all comes together.”

Frank Whetstone and his mother Stacey help catch and tag Monarch butterflies during their fall migration. They also participate in vegetation analysis and pond-breeding amphibian monitoring at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Photo by Tiffany Beachy.

Frank Whetstone and his mother Stacey help catch and tag Monarch butterflies during their fall migration. They also participate in vegetation analysis and pond-breeding amphibian monitoring at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont. Photo by Tiffany Beachy.

Mac Post is a retired Oak Ridge National Laboratories environmental scientist. He used observations from citizen scientists to look at growing seasons for climate modeling while at Oak Ridge. He now monitors phenology plots and trains other citizen scientists at Tremont.

He says the value of citizen science goes beyond the information gathered.

“It gets people involved in understanding the scientific process and understanding what the source of information is and how the information is used and gets them to appreciate those things more,” Post says.

Beachy says citizen science has been around for several hundred years. She attributes its recent growth, in part, to the scope of the climate change problem and the need for large amounts of data.

According to Beachy, citizen scientists form the backbone of Tremont’s research, including a phenology project started in 2010. The project monitors eight plots of land dispersed throughout different forest types and elevations within walking distance of the campus. Citizen scientist volunteers visit the plots each week and record the seasonal changes of various species. Researchers are especially interested to see if the migratory arrival of birds changes over time in conjunction with the changes in the leaf-out of the trees and the availability of food resources.

“It’s very specific and detailed, so we get a very good picture, a snapshot, of what’s going on in the forest at that moment,” Beachy says.

“It’s hard to say that what we’re seeing so far is directly related to climate change, because we’ve seen it for a short period of time,” she adds. “But what I do notice, what I’ve seen in just the last few years, is lots of extremes.”

Beachy says the Tremont institute is working with research partners to analyze the accumulated data in the future as part of long-term climate change research.

The volunteers have contributed more than 2,000 hours to gathering data — an amount that would be impossible without citizen scientists.

The Highlands Biological Station in Highlands, N.C., found a different way to approach plot-based monitoring. The station hosts a planned garden of native plants and is the model for a network of similar gardens in the region that will allow scientists to compare data on the same species in different areas. Volunteers can record observations by visiting the Phenology Garden in person, or by visiting the website at highlandsbiological.org/phenology-garden and using the “Phenocam” webcam.

Trail Science

The Appalachian Trail MEGA-Transect phenology project monitors changes on a much larger scale. Volunteers collect information along the trail, from Georgia to Maine. Laura Belleville, Conservation Director at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, says the project began in earnest two and a half years ago.

“Our data is collected by trained volunteers — we’re always looking for new volunteers — at identified sites, to monitor specific species,” Belleville says. “That then can be rolled up to look at long-term trends with regard to the timing of bud release or flowering along the Appalachian Trail corridor.”

The program is too young to reveal any concrete conclusions about climate change on the trail, but the data has provided indicators of environmental health along the trail and is shared with the National Phenological Network to monitor changes over the long term.

“It’s a great opportunity to get outside and participate in a very large-scale scientific research project, and help us collectively understand the potential impacts of climate change,” says Belleville.

Is Climate Change for the Birds?

The National Audubon Society’s Christmas bird count encompasses much of the North American continent and may be the longest-running phenology project to date. It began 115 years ago and boasts tens of thousands of volunteers who count the bird population across the nation during a three-week period in December and January.

“The data that’s been collected over the century-plus gives us a good snapshot of the current bird distribution and how it’s changed,” says Curtis Smalling, director of Land Bird Conservation for Audubon North Carolina.

A landmark report based on volunteer-collected data and published by Audubon in 2009 shows that about a third of the bird species had shifted measurably north during that time.

The data was also used to publish another study in September 2014, “Birds and Climate Change,” that predicts what could happen over the next 80 years.

“The take-home message from the climate report is half the birds that breed in the U.S. are at risk from climate change,” Smalling says.

“Will they adapt? Will some species go extinct? We just don’t know. They’ve never had to adapt at this speed. And really, that makes the citizen science that informed those original reports that much more important,” he says.

Knowledge is Power

Data is a problem, according to Dr. Walter Smith, assistant professor at the University of Virginia at Wise, home to the student-led Southwest Virginia Citizen Science Initiative.

“We really don’t have a good handle on where certain species even live in the area, because some areas have been so heavily under-sampled,” Smith says. “And so for us, citizen science was a way to address that.”

Citizen observations from the Norton, Va., area led researchers to discover a previously-unknown and unusually abundant population of the secretive green salamander species. Information gleaned from studies at this site has led to more than 35 new populations of the species being discovered across southwest Virginia, as well as new insight into possible conservation threats facing the species. Photo by Walter Smith.

Citizen observations from the Norton, Va., area led researchers to discover a previously-unknown and unusually abundant population of the secretive green salamander species. Information gleaned from studies at this site has led to more than 35 new populations of the species being discovered across southwest Virginia, as well as new insight into possible conservation threats facing the species. Photo by Walter Smith.

The Southwest Virginia initiative is a partnership between UVA and iNaturalist, an online biodiversity social network collecting data for scientific research. Smith says the iNaturalist partnership allows citizen scientists to gather data on a larger scale than the scientific community can cover, or from private property that is inaccessible to scientists.

“When they see wildlife either on their property or hiking, they take a photograph of it,” he says. “That becomes an observation that’s uploaded to iNaturalist that can actually be used by scientists as data on biodiversity.”

Smith counts the two year old project a success, with nearly 4,000 individual wildlife observations by close to 300 volunteers capturing nearly 700 different species across the region. The information goes into a repository called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility and is accessible to anyone around the globe.

He hopes citizen science will inform experts and the public about how the planet is changing and how best to respond to it.

The Audubon Society’s Curtis Smalling agrees. “For us, the whole climate debate is about getting good information, more than politicizing it,” he says. “We really need good data.”

Become a Citizen Scientist

Citizen science is a rapidly growing movement of people participating in research across many disciplines. Volunteers contribute their time and observation skills, while doing things they love, to help build databases scientists use to conduct their research. Citizen science is a potent tool that has a real impact on how the public understands science, from climate change to astronomy to medicine.
Check out these links to help monitor climate change:

  • Are you into diatoms? Mollusks? Amphibians? Upload photographs of what you love on iNaturalist and become part of a global network of professional and amateur naturalists at: inaturalist.org
  • Help scientists meet their goal of 1.5 million plant and animal observations by contributing to the National Phenology Network at: usanpn.org/natures_notebook
  • Timing is everything for Project Budburst! Find out why: budburst.org
  • Want to know why Cornell University thinks citizen science is for the birds? Visit: birds.cornell.edu/citscitoolkit
  • Or visit scistarter.com/index.html to find your niche from a list of 600 citizen science projects covering many subjects